Hedda Tesman review – meet Ibsen's heroine, 30 years on

Minerva theatre, Chichester
A woman’s withering agency is examined through nostalgia and regret, in Cordelia Lynn’s rewrite of the tragedy

Cordelia Lynn’s bleak, modern-day rewrite of Hedda Gabler follows the beats of Ibsen’s story but gives the volatile title character another 30 years of life. Haydn Gwynne is sad and sardonic as the lonely woman who cooks and looks well, but never quite finds her purpose. She has lived through “having it all” and still feels empty.

Rather than Ibsen’s just-married setting, the now middle-aged couple move into a looming old country house. The honeymoon period of their relationship is long dead: Hedda snaps as if every word from her eager but overbearing husband George (Anthony Calf) gives her a migraine.

Ibsen’s decision to define the play by Hedda’s maiden name, Gabler, binds her to her heritage as her father’s daughter, so Lynn’s switch of focus to her married name, Tesman, suggests a handover of control to George. However, in today’s context, an educated, middle-class woman being bound to her kind if hapless husband doesn’t exactly land poignantly as a restriction. Her father’s influence lingers more than that of her flailing husband, and the gaping slats in the blinds allow light to fall (rather heavy-handedly) on the ever-watchful eyes of his portrait. The men may be in the way of Hedda’s freedom on the set, but they don’t block it.

Hedda’s rival is her daughter, Thea, played by Natalie Simpson.
Hedda’s rival is her daughter, Thea, played by Natalie Simpson. Photograph: Johan Persson

Instead, the play’s attention is on Hedda as a mother, with Lynn writing her rival, Thea (Natalie Simpson), as Hedda’s distant, grown-up daughter. Where Ibsen’s original gives young Hedda the simultaneous threat and currency of pregnancy, Lynn makes Hedda’s tightly wound daughter a burden; the baby derailed her career, caused a form of postpartum depression and rid Hedda of the power she spends the rest of the play searching for.

In Headlong’s co-production with the Minerva and the Lowry, Holly Race Roughan’s neat, measured direction looks good on Anna Fleischle’s slate-grey set. But the play lacks dynamism as the text builds intensity and it doesn’t earn the impact of the great final tragedies. By taking Hedda Gabler forward in time, both in her life and in our world, Hedda Tesman uses nostalgia and regret to examine a woman’s withering agency. But this production is too tidy for her pain. Even the manuscript burning and flaming guns hold little heat.


Kate Wyver

The GuardianTramp

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